Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
-- The five most underrated players in the NFL in 2021.
-- A look at three potential trade fits for former first-round pick N'Keal Harry.
But first, a look at what NFL teams can learn from a dynasty on the ice ...
If I am an owner, executive or coach in the NFL, I am placing a call to the Tampa Bay Lightning to see if I can get a behind-the-scenes look at how they quietly built this hockey dynasty.
The Lightning not only just won their second consecutive Stanley Cup, but they have been in the conversation as one of the top teams in the league for nearly a decade. And the franchise's consistent excellence provides a number of crossover learning lessons that could produce similar results in other sports leagues, including the NFL.
To be fair, I'm no hockey aficionado, but I appreciate greatness, and there is no denying Tampa Bay is one of the premier organizations in the sport today. The team has played in three Stanley Cup Finals -- and five Eastern Conference Finals -- over the past seven years. So, how did general manager Julien BriseBois and head coach Jon Cooper build such an impressive operation in an area that isn't exactly known as a hockey hotbed?
After taking deep dive into the Lightning's back-to-back titles, here are three lessons NFL team-builders can utilize to construct an elite squad in an ultra-competitive league:
1) Patience pays off. Jon Cooper is currently the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, boasting a 384-197-53 mark over eight regular seasons -- that's a points percentage of .647, which is second all-time to the legendary Scotty Bowman among coaches who've logged at least five seasons. The two-time Stanley Cup winner has guided his team to an impressive 70-46 record (.603) in the postseason. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see why the Lightning have kept the ultra-successful coach in place. But it's important to remember the franchise's decision to stick with him after Tampa Bay came up short in some big games before this recent title binge. The team lost a Stanley Cup Final in 2015, fell short in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016 and '18, and suffered through an embarrassing sweep in the first round of the 2019 playoffs after posting the league's best regular-season record by a wide margin. This trajectory not only led to questions about whether Cooper was the right man to lead the team, but it prompted observers to suggest that management should blow up the squad after repeated shortcomings in the playoffs.
To their credit, the Lightning did not overreact to the team's postseason setbacks, and their patience has been rewarded with back-to-back championships. In the NFL, the combination of high standards and low patience has prompted some teams to move on from successful coaches (SEE: Andy Reid in Philadelphia). And despite their immense success, guys like Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh haven't been immune to hot-seat rumors when certain seasons didn't end well.
The most important thing for coaches to show management is that they are capable of building a consistent winner. While I am not suggesting that regular-season success should completely trump playoff performance, it must carry legitimate weight in the final evaluation. If you want to win championships, you have to consistently get in the playoffs in the first place. (A no-brainer point, yes, but one that many people often overlook.) And you can't overreact to early exits. Despite the heartbreaks and headaches, the best coaches and teams eventually find a way to the winner's circle, using prior failures to build a grittier squad that is capable of overcoming adversity and hoisting the trophy.
2) Draft, develop and re-sign your stars. The best way to build a consistent contender is to stockpile the roster with homegrown talent. Teams that identify and develop their stars from Day 1 have the capacity to build a championship team around a nucleus of young players who grow up in the system together and establish a culture that embodies the franchise. In a perfect world, a championship roster features a mix of top picks playing like superstars and developmental guys making key contributions in designated roles. That's definitely the case with the Lightning. C Steven Stamkos (No. 1 overall pick in 2008), D Victor Hedman (No. 2 overall in 2009) and G Andrei Vasilevskiy (No. 19 overall in 2012) are blue-chip performers on the ice, while RW Nikita Kucherov (No. 58 overall in 2011) and C Brayden Point (No. 79 overall in 2014) have outplayed their draft status to flourish as cornerstone players for Tampa Bay. With those last two, the coaching staff and scouting department deviated from NFL norms to select a pair of players without the prototypical physical dimensions. In each case, the Lightning opted for speed and skills over size and strength, and they were rewarded with spectacular returns on investment.
Looking at the NFL for a similar comparison, I would point to the Kansas City Chiefs' success with their homegrown approach. The Chiefs plucked a superstar in Patrick Mahomes by utilizing an aggressive draft-day trade to land their QB1. The team has surrounded him with an explosive cast of playmakers possessing speed, athleticism and playmaking skills. Considering that Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman lacked prototypical dimensions and/or traditional playing styles, K.C.'s ability to identify and develop players outside of the first round reminds me of the Lightning's team-building approach.
The NHL's back-to-back champs and the Chiefs also have utilized similar retention tactics to keep the nucleus together. Both have found ways to manage their salary situations while retaining their core players with deals that pay them well ... but below market value on paper. The clever accounting maneuvers have enabled each team to maintain a well-rounded contender year in and year out.
3) Build a team that can play like a chameleon. The best teams in any sport are capable of winning games in multiple ways. Tampa Bay is the ultimate chameleon on ice, as a team with the capacity to win shootouts or grind-it-out affairs. This versatility has been fueled by the Lightning's ability to construct a roster that features skilled players and enforcers throughout the depth chart. With a lineup that enables the Tampa Bay to create and exploit mismatches, the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions can play -- and win -- utilizing any style.
When I watch the Lightning morph into a different team based on the situation, it reminds me of the New England Patriots winning with snowflake game plans during their two-decade dynasty run. Those Pats would bludgeon opponents with a smashmouth running game one week and then light up the scoreboard with a spread-and-shred attack the next. The depth and versatility of their roster and playbook allowed Bill Belichick and Co. to keep opponents from homing in on a one-dimensional approach.
Teams like the Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Rams, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks, among others, have taken steps to create more balance in 2021, giving them more options to move past postseason roadblocks. If they are going to become champions and perennial contenders, it is imperative to build a roster that can win playing any style on the grass.
TOP FIVE: Most underrated players in 2021
If you have not listened to the most recent "Flying Coach" podcast with Peter Schrager and Sean McVay, you are missing out on a great conversation between a couple of quarterback gurus, as Kyle Shanahan joined his NFC West counterpart's show to discuss all things football.
One of the most interesting discussions centered on Matthew Stafford, who, of course, just relocated from the Lions to McVay's Rams this offseason. Although the former No. 1 overall pick is regularly lauded for his arm talent, Shanahan and McVay both believe the veteran deserves more credit for his overall ability and accomplishments as a player.
"Stafford's the man," Shanahan said on the pod. "I studied him hard coming out of college, and you always play against him, so you know how good he is. But to know he might be available and to spend two weeks really watching him, Sean, yeah, he's better than I realized. He was the man. He's actually underrated to me. I know how good of a guy you got. I know how good he is at play-action. I know how smart he is. Not only does he just have a big arm, but he's got touch, he knows where to go with the ball."
Wow! You rarely hear a coach rave about an opposing player like that unless there is a tremendous amount of respect. The effusive praise coming from Shanahan not only prompted me to re-examine Stafford's game, but it sent me on a mission to find other players who deserve more recognition for their play between the lines.
Given some time to survey the league and poll a few folks on which players are really underrated in our game, I've come up with a list of the five most underrated players in the league today:
The veteran quarterback has always been regarded as one of the most naturally talented passers in the league, but few observers rank Stafford as a top-five quarterback. Despite posting impressive numbers for a downtrodden franchise -- including 38 game-winning drives and 31 fourth-quarterback comebacks during his Detroit tenure -- No. 9 has not received much recognition as a premier player at the position. That should change with Stafford teaming up with Sean McVay to direct an offense with explosive scoring potential due to the structure and personnel. Given more weapons and a creative play-caller, the one-time Pro Bowler could finally earn MVP talk from the football world.
Despite being generally overshadowed by 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, Jackson is recognized as one of the NFL's top cover corners by coaches and scouts around the league. The former undrafted free-agent signee plays with a junkyard-dog mentality while displaying elite ball skills and awareness on the perimeter. Jackson has generated 20 turnovers (17 interceptions, three fumble recoveries) in 45 career games, including 12 takeaways in 2020 alone. As a turnover machine with size, length and cover skills, Jackson is a player every defensive coach would covet in the lineup.
If you are only familiar with Baker's name due to the three-year, $39 million extension that he signed this offseason, you have missed out on watching the emergence of one of the NFL's best young linebackers. The fourth-year pro has led the Dolphins in tackles in back-to-back seasons while also demonstrating big-play ability as a second-level pass rusher (seven sacks in 2020). If Miami is going to take the next step as a playoff contender, No. 55 will play a major role in helping the team get over the hump.
Casual observers might dismiss Tonyan's breakout 2020 campaign as just a byproduct of Aaron Rodgers' MVP performance, but a closer look at the 27-year-old's game reveals a crafty route runner with soft hands and superb ball skills. The Indiana State product is a space maker between the numbers with a combination of quickness, athleticism and physicality that enables him to roam free over the middle. With 11 touchdowns on 52 receptions last season, Tonyan emerged as a prolific point scorer for Green Bay.
After playing out of position during his first three seasons in Arizona, the former No. 13 overall pick found his groove as an edge defender for the Cardinals in 2020, piling up 63 tackles, 16 quarterback hits, 15 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and four passes defensed. A reunion with his college coaches (Matt Rhule and Phil Snow) in Carolina should help the Temple product continue to play at a high level in a role better suited to his talents. If the veteran plays with the same energy and effort that he has always displayed since initially walking on at Temple, the Panthers' defense should improve quickly with the free-agent signee positioned in a key role.
N'KEAL HARRY: Three potential trade fits
One man's trash is another man's treasure.
If you had any doubts about whether NFL scouts and coaches subscribe to this age-old adage, I expect the outcome of the N'Keal Harry saga will serve as a reminder that teams are always ready to take a shot on once-promising players who have been demoted or dismissed.
The New England Patriots' 2019 first-round pick has been a major disappointment, providing two seasons of inconsistent play at wide receiver. This offseason, the team signed Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne as free agents to upgrade the position, boosting speculation that Harry -- whom teams had already been calling about, per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo -- was on the trade block and available to anyone looking for a big-bodied pass catcher on the perimeter. Thus, it was not a surprise to learn this week that Harry has requested a trade away from New England.
While Harry certainly has not performed up to expectations, it is too early to dismiss his chances of becoming a key contributor as a designated chain mover in the passing game.
At Arizona State, the 6-foot-2, 228-pounder destroyed opponents as a 50-50 specialist on the perimeter. Harry routinely wrestled the ball away from defenders while displaying outstanding hand-eye coordination and strength. In addition, he flashed excellent skills as an open-field runner. Harry not only blew through arm tackles with ease, but he knocked would-be tacklers down with aggressive stiff-arms that matched his feisty demeanor. The combination of physicality, toughness and intensity led me to believe he would evolve into a top possession receiver in an offense that needed a reliable pass-catching threat between the numbers.
However, in New England, Harry failed to carve out a role, averaging just 9.2 yards per catch (on 45 receptions) in 21 career games, with four touchdowns. Injuries have impacted his play. Even so, it's hard to get excited about a big-bodied wideout averaging fewer than 10 yards per catch in a pass-happy league.
The disappointment continues when studying film of Harry. He struggles against press coverage and lacks the burst to run away from defenders down the field. The lack of separation makes it hard to feature the young receiver as a WR1. Without proof that his 50-50 skills can translate to the NFL, the Patriots will have a tough time getting return compensation that comes anywhere close to his original value as the No. 32 overall pick in 2019. Perhaps Bill Belichick can pry a late-round selection from an interested team; a conditional sixth- or seventh-round selection might be the Pats' best bet at this stage.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the best fits for Harry on the trade market:
The Packers have been searching for a consistent WR2 to place opposite Davante Adams for years. Although Harry has struggled in New England as a part-time starter, he possesses the size and running skills to shine in an offense that features some catch-and-run elements. Aaron Rodgers' status remains in question, but if he returns as the QB1, the MVP might be able to sprinkle some magic dust on Harry to help him re-discover his game as a rugged playmaker on the perimeter.
Matt Nagy and Co. need to find weapons to complement Allen Robinson in the passing game. Despite Harry's struggles, he is a big body with the size and physicality to win one-on-one matchups down the field. With Robinson routinely commanding double-coverage, the young pass catcher could carve out a niche as a WR2/WR3 while learning the nuances of the position from the Bears' No. 1 option.
The lack of depth and talent behind Michael Thomas and Tre'Quan Smith could prompt Sean Payton to take a flier on Harry's potential with a low-risk trade. The 23-year-old would have an opportunity to get onto the field as a WR3 if he could beat out the competition for the role. Harry's size and ball skills could add a dimension to the Saints' offense if Payton could unlock his potential.